Fundraising appeals – whether to raise funds for annual needs, special campaigns, or new and urgent initiatives – are a fundamental component of most nonprofit organizations’ fundraising activities. Fundraising solicitation letters are an equally fundamental component of most appeals; sometimes the only component. So it’s only natural that fundraisers continue to place considerable emphasis on this historically effective development tactic.
Tried and true even in today’s world so overwrought with electronic communications, solicitation letters are still typically sent the old-fashioned way through postal mail, although most fundraising organizations are now embracing email messaging for many donor and prospect segments. (In fact, during the pandemic, postal mail received an unprecedented, if temporary, ‘renaissance’. As email volumes increased overall, locked-down, home-bound supporters looked forward to their daily ‘outing’ to the mailbox to get the days’ mail.)
Whether sending by postal mail, email, or email attachments (the latter being, perhaps, the best of both), solicitation letters can be intimidating to write. For some, it can feel like fundraising targets are riding on every word. This added stress can lead to writer’s block and cause a lack of confidence about what you’re sending to donors and prospects. The good news is that writing a strong, well-crafted solicitation letter that resonates with current and potential donors is eminently achievable when you keep a few key pointers in mind.
Every nonprofit wants each appeal to be unique and to attract the most possible donors and donations. With time and practice, you can create a reliable process for crafting the most effective appeals and the donation letters that support them. Whether you’re writing solicitation letters once a year or every few weeks in support of multiple campaigns, here’s a breakdown of what an exceptional appeal needs.
Solicitation Letters – Knowing and Segmenting Your Audience
The first step to writing an effective solicitation letter should be the easiest: knowing to whom you are writing the letter. Since most appeals engage multiple donor and prospect segments, it may not be feasible to write a unique letter for each individual audience. One best practice is to draft a ‘core’ letter template, that contains all of the primary, central messaging you want to include, and then build a number of variations on that theme.
This way, your organization’s branding and messaging will be consistent across the appeal’s different segments. A less daunting task now is to create a version of the letter appropriately unique to each segment. This might include details or storytelling that will motivate segment members to donate in ways that a more generic message could miss the mark. Using relevant data to build your segments can inform what details and stories best resonate with segment members.
For example, you can speak to current donors about program initiatives that their most recent gifts supported. You can speak to non-donor volunteers focusing on recent volunteer project accomplishments. And you can speak to non-donor newsletter recipients calling out a story featured in the most recent newsletter. Based on the information that you maintain in your main CRM system and the data you collect from the other engagement platforms you use, the segmentation and related messaging permutations are limitless.
To ensure that you have access to all the information you need for the most effective audience segmentation, it’s imperative that data from all your organization’s various engagement platforms are effectively integrated into your main CRM system. Ensuring that the data you use for segmentation is current and complete will give you the upper hand in developing both strategic segments and the best possible messaging for those audiences.
A McKinsey study from November 2021 re-emphasizes that personalization matters more than ever before. The study demonstrates that personalization is especially effective at driving repeat engagement and loyalty over time. For example, 78% of consumers — including donors — are more likely to make repeat purchases from companies that personalize. Conversely, 76% of consumers get frustrated when personalization is lacking. And 71% of consumers have come to expect personalization (thus the large percentage of frustration when personalization is absent).
While databases make it easy to address a letter using a recipient’s first and last name, this shouldn’t be the only time you refer to them by name. Think about how you can contextually and naturally use the recipient’s name several times throughout the letter. Don’t force it, but focus on connecting with the recipient on the most personal level possible, and fostering the relationship.
Personalization based on an existing relationship is going to be the most critical for major gift donors; this is where emphasizing a truly personal touch will go a long way. For major gift officers working with major donors, it’s common practice to furnish both a personal cover letter and a personalized proposal. This approach may not work for every nonprofit, and major gift solicitations are often pulled out of more ‘high-volume’ appeals and segregated toward more high-touch fundraising tactics.
Suffice it to say that personalization has been demonstrated to make a significant difference in consumer behavior, and in calling current and prospective donors to action. This is true at all levels of the donor pyramid, not just toward the top. And data integration supports effective personalization as well. An up-to-date database that includes current information from your various engagement platforms will ensure that fundraisers have the freshest, most complete data available for relational personalization.
Grab Their Attention and Leverage It
According to Fundera (powered by NerdWallet), the open rate for direct mail letters can reach up to 90%, and some 42% of recipients read or scan the direct mail letters they receive. That said, even supporters who open and read or scan your letter may lose interest in a letter partway through. Therefore, you only have a limited amount of time to get your readers’ attention, make your message resonate, and complete the ask. And, because supporters may only scan your letter to glean key information quickly, your letter needs to scan as well as it reads. (And, this is true for email and email attachments as well as for direct postal mail.)
Accomplish this by presenting your most important messaging upfront, in order to draw your supporters in and keep them reading. Your typical recipient will read the first line, bolded and italicized words, headings, bulleted lists, and quotations. Studies have shown that scanners will also read a P.S. Experienced letter-writers will frequently include a compelling P.S. at the end of a solicitation letter.
Being cognizant of these areas toward which readers and scanners gravitate, and knowing to use formatting – bold, italics, bullet points – will help you determine where to focus and emphasize your story. If you keep your letter recipients interested from the outset, you’re more likely to connect with them, encourage them, and enhance their desire to donate.
Structuring Your Solicitation Letters
Once you’ve gotten your supporters’ attention, structure the rest of the letter in a way that is easily digested by any reader. This means taking advantage of headings, emphasizing important phrases or sentences, and making use of paragraph breaks to make large blocks of text easier to read. These days, there are a number of apps that can help a writer improve readability. A best practice is to write for readers between a grade 6 and grade 9 reading level.
Beyond that, here are the finer points you’ll want to touch on in your letter:
Asking for Specific Amounts
Conventional wisdom in solicitation letters is that you should define a specific donation amount for the supporter to consider. If you can tie the amount-request to a specific fundraising goal, all the better. Many organizations include an ‘ask ladder’, which is a series of amounts (eg, $100, $150, $200) for a donor to consider, with the lowest being either their most recent gift or, for new donors, the standard expected entry-level gift amount. Again, databases and data extraction formulae can provide this information as variable data elements that can be merged into your solicitation letters.
By providing a specific donation amount, you can then take the messaging further by sharing how a gift of that amount will help reach your goal(s) and drive your mission impact. When a donor knows the direct impact of their gift, they’ll feel more confident that their donation is actually making a difference.
How Fundraising Supports the Nonprofit’s Mission
Experienced fundraising professionals are familiar with the cycle of Cultivation ⇒ Solicitation ⇒ Stewardship, in which a donor or prospect is first engaged and exposed to organizational needs, then solicited for a gift to support those needs, then stewarded by demonstrating how their gift was used to meet those needs. Very often, solicitation letters (including email) need to manage the cultivation and the solicitation all in the same communique.
Because of that, it’s imperative that your solicitation letter calls out the mission of the organization (or the purpose of the specific campaign or project), and demonstrates how the donor’s gift will support the organization’s mission, not only overall but in reasonable detail. Call it ‘pre-stewardship’, if needs be.
For example, let’s say a local or regional nonprofit needs to replace some equipment they loan out to families in need, which is one of their main program services. The details – families served, families that might not be served but for designated contributions – are important for your letter recipient to know. Those details connect the dots for how your fundraising efforts and her gift directly relate to your organization’s work.
In connecting the donor or prospect to the success of the organization’s mission, your solicitation letter should also incorporate relevant facts that demonstrate the need for the donation. It shows that you’ve done your research and know what it takes to reach your fundraising goals.
Among the most important components of a strong appeal letter is incorporating at least one story (and ideally more) that demonstrates your organization’s mission impact. Stories should be emotionally compelling, as donors want to feel that their donations are being put to good use.
Real-life stories are the most compelling and will give the supporters reading your letter more than a glimpse into the students / patients / families / children / animals / causes / research that your organization has directly supported. Stories about other donors (or about volunteers) and their experiences work as well, if those stories can be effectively tied back to your mission. If possible, get and use a quote or a testimonial in your letter – from someone helped by your organization, or from a donor, or both.
Nonprofit storytelling is one of the oldest and most reliable tools that can help convince people to give.
Putting it All Together – a Strong Solicitation Letter; a Strong Appeal
Solicitation letters are important for so many different reasons and they can be crafted to fit the needs of any nonprofit. Whether soliciting first-time prospects or long-time donors, writing strong, successful appeal letters can be done with relative facility.
Before you start crafting your next appeal and writing your next solicitation letter, consider the items below so you can nail it the first time:
- Define your goals
- Identify your audience segments and tailor your messages accordingly
- Personalize, personalize, personalize!
- Get and maintain your readers’ attention
- Make your letter easy to read
- Cultivate and ‘pre-steward’, and be direct in your ask
- Make your case with mission-specific facts, figures, and emotional storytelling
P.S. (get it?) –
Throughout this essay, we’ve made a point of stating the importance of data quality: having current, complete data at your fingertips, so that you can make the best audience segmentation decisions and ensure that the time and energy you spend on personalization is taking advantage of the freshest information there is. Today’s nonprofit technical ecosystems are made up not only of a complex main CRM system (such as Raiser’s Edge NXT or Salesforce NPSP) but also include any number of ‘satellite’ or ‘boundary’ applications and platforms used for donor service and supporter engagement.
These ancillary platforms collect, manage, and house data, but if their data are not integrated with your main CRM database, the information you depend on for audience segmentation and personalization will neither be current nor complete. Further, if you combine data manually or use rudimentary import tools, you may find yourself with duplicates or erroneous data, both of which could negatively impact your appeal and donation letters.
Smart data integration can ensure that the freshest data from all your data repositories can be used as effectively as possible to support your appeals and solicitation letters. Make sure that integration is part of your overall appeal strategy.